Math in the Media

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Math Digest

On Media Coverage of Math

Edited by Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, AMS Public Awareness Officers
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (freelance science writer), Lisa DeKeukelaere (2004 AMS Media Fellow), Annette Emerson (AMS), Brie Finegold (University of Arizona), Anna Haensch (2014 AMS Media Fellow), Allyn Jackson (Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS), and Ben Polletta (Boston University)

July 2014

The sheep of Wall Street, by Anna Haensch

I will begin by confessing that Leonardo DiCaprio, all decked out in a crisp white Polo and Ray-Bans, angrily throwing $100 bills off the side of his ginormous yacht is pretty in-line with how I picture big-shot Wall Street types.  But a profile of successful Wall Street trader and financial entrepreneur Elie Galam on paints a much different picture -- that of a quiet math nerd, more concerned with probability theory than parties and yachts. 

Galam is part of a new breed of Wall Street denizens called quantitative analysts, or more colloquially, "quants."  This means he spends his days using complex mathematical concepts to try and understand financial markets. Because of the number-crunchy nature of this work, many math types are finding themselves increasingly at home in the world of finance. 

And statistics suggest that it's a great job and likely to boom in popularity over the next decade.  The number of quants is expected to grow by 41% from 2010 to 2020, and according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for a quant is $91,620--a veritable fortune to a poor grad student. 

For Galam, Wall Street came calling and plucked him out of graduate school after only one year, but for other mathematicians considering making the transition, Cathy O'Neill wrote this great article for Notices summing up her experience moving from the ivory tower to Wall Street. 

See "Math nerds are taking over Wall Street," by Jesse Solomon., 26 July 2014.

--- Anna Haensch

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Grigory Perelman Doesn't Care If You Like It*, by Ben Pittman-Polletta

Fields medalGrigory Perelman is certainly a remarkable and unusual person. Among many remarkable facts about the man -- such as his role proving Thurston's geometrization conjecture and his grooming habits -- is the fact that he did not claim the Clay Insitute Prize or the Fields Medal, both of which were awarded to him for his work on the geometrization conjecture. Rene Azurin, a professor of management and "strategy consultant" singles out these facts as an indicator that Perelman is the harbinger of either a new era of human evolution, or the demise of a grand old one. "Clearly," says Azurin, Perelman "is the kind of individual for whom the acquisition of knowledge is the only goal worth pursuing in life. In this materialist day and age where wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption is the measure not only of success but of virtue, that makes him a rare and highly unusual man." Photo: Fields Medal (the one Grigori Perelman did not accept), by Stefan Zachow (ZIB), courtesy International Mathematical Union.

At the risk of taking Azurin too seriously, I'm thankful that neither evolution nor human nature are as simplistic as he makes them out to be. For one thing, figuring out whether or not people are evolving is complicated ("Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population," by Emmanuel Milot et al, PNAS, 28 September 2011). One approach -- correlating traits of menopausal women with the number of their offspring -- allows a prediction of the phenotypic makeup of future generations, and (less plausibly) an estimate of the direction of evolutionary change. Based on a three-generation study of women in Framingham, Massachusetts, one group showed that the women in this population are evolving to be shorter and stouter, have lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and longer reproductive periods ("Natural selection in a contemporary human population," by Sean G. Byars et al, PNAS, 23 October 2009). (In other words, these traits are -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- associated with high reproductive rates.) But whether or not humans continue to evolve, no one knows if even a very long chain of causality links genetic and epigenetic variability to complex moral attitudes, such as the relative valuation of knowledge and wealth.

Perhaps Azurin means cultural evolution, instead. A person's context certainly affects their approach to the acquisition of material wealth. But it's one thing to recognize how business and government's short-sighted prioritization of growth and profit, combined with an immersive media environment that allows constant sensory bombardment, push human beings into a dissatisfying cycle of mindless consumption and overwork. It's quite another to bemoan "this materialist day and age" without any attempt to illuminate the structural and historical contingencies that have brought it about, or any serious attempt to frame the moral problems posed by the socioeconomic and technological realities of our time.

But even if we were having a serious conversation about the nature of wealth, and the good reasons someone might refuse a vast sum of money ("Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?," by Belinda Luscombe, TIME, 6 September 2010, "8 People Who Refused Millionaire Offers" by Natalie Umansky, Oddee, 19 June 2013) -- such as, say, the fact that neither knowledge nor material wealth are sufficient for a balanced life of contentment -- I'm not sure mathematicians would make good examples. While mathematics is routinely listed as one of the "best" professions ("The 10 Best Jobs of 2014," by Adam Auriemma, Wall Street Journal, 15 April 2014), I think no references are needed to back up the assertion that there are better ways to make money. There are few better ways, though, to create a new piece of knowledge likely to stand the test of time. Is it really surprising, then, that a mathematician would be more pleased with the solution of a hard problem than any other reward? Paul Erdos, the incredibly prolific combinatorialist, lived out of a suitcase, and gave all the prize money he earned to charity (see Paul Erdős entry on Wikipedia) -- and maybe it's no coincidence that these two things went together. To put it another way, if you like thinking about mathematics more than you like thinking about anything else, why would you want to worry about what to do with a million dollars (or the best way to live your life, or the future of the human race)? That's just one more distraction from mathematics!

* The title of this post is taken from a recent article about the scrutiny of women's decisions ("I Don't Care If You Like It," by Rebecca Traister, New Republic, 16 July 2014), which is a distraction worth indulging.

See "Evolutionary advance or dead end?," by René B. Azurin. Business World Online, 23 July 2014.

--- Ben Pittman-Polletta

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On majors and jobs, by Mike Breen

Graph of majors and jobs

There's some question about whether the U.S. has too many people looking for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs or too few. In an effort to clarify the situation, the U.S. Census Bureau has created a graphic that shows the flow from the approximately 15 million college STEM majors to the approximately 5 million people who hold STEM jobs. The graphic is interactive, too, so that users can choose a category (such as computer science, mathematics, and statistics, as shown at left) and see in what fields people with those majors are employed or choose a job and see what those people majored in. Visitors to the site can also view the data on which the graphic is based, look at non-STEM majors, and narrow their search to gender or race. Image: The U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO). The length of each circle segment shows the proportion of people graduating in a major who are employed in each occupation group. The thickness of the curves between majors and occupations indicates the share of people in that major-occupation combination. Curves highlighted in color show the proportion of college graduates who work in STEM.

See "A fresh look at the STEM workforce." News, Science, 18 July 2014, page 245.

--- Mike Breen

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Strawberry fields forever, by Lisa DeKeukelaere

Video: National Science Foundation.

Mathematicians are helping California farmers increase strawberry and raspberry production while minimizing water use--a key problem in that state--by using algorithms and models. Researchers from the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), with funding from the National Science Foundation, are working with the farmers to develop mathematically driven answers to questions about what to plant and when to rotate crops based on growing patterns, cost, and groundwater levels. AIM Deputy Director Estelle Basor explains that AIM's work is attempting to lessen some of the risk inherent in farming decisions. Though focused at present on berry growers in California's Pajaro Valley, AIM researchers hope to apply their models to a range of crops throughout the country, from a wheat farm in the Midwest to a corn farm in the Southeast. This piece includes a short video in which the farmers and the researchers discuss the goals and value of this mathematical research.

See "How math is growing more strawberries in California," by Rebecca Jacobson. PBS News Hour, 11 July 2014.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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A profile of James Simons, by Lisa DeKeuekelaere

James Simons

This profile piece describes the life of James Simons, a mathematician famous not only for his groundbreaking proofs but also for the philanthropic projects he undertakes with his $12.5 billion fortune. After receiving his PhD in math at age 23, Simons taught at MIT and Harvard before working on cryptography for the NSA and later running the math department at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he won the nation's highest prize for his work in geometry. Simons then started Renaissance Technologies, a successful investment firm driven by scientific minds, and began pouring his wealth into projects such as a foundation to promote math education in public schools and a math museum in New York City. Simons notes that he is a terrible programmer and probably would not have performed well in math competitions in his youth, but he credits his success to pondering the world around him.

See: " Seeker, Doer, Giver, Ponderer," by William J. Broad. New York Times, 7 July 2014, and also "Jim Simons: Mathematician, Codebreaker And Hedge Fund Manager," by Clayton Browne. ValueWalk, 10 July 2014.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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On preventing collisions between whales and ships, by Allyn Jackson

whalesThis brief article presents an interview with marine biologist Asha de Vos, who is working on ways to prevent Sri Lankan blue whales from colliding with large ships. She and her collaborators are developing mathematical models "to understand which areas are key to the survival of the Sri Lankan whales, and where they intersect with shipping lanes." de Vos says, "Using sighting locations and satellite data on temperature, chlorophyll concentrations and salinity, we build habitat models.... When we know which conditions attract whales, we can identify other areas in which they might gather, then overlay the shipping lanes to see where the ships and the whales come together. Then we can target those areas for reducing the likelihood of collisions."

See: "I'm modelling whale ways to keep them safe from ships: Interview with Asha de Vos", by Madhumita Venkataramanan, New Scientist, 7 July 2014, and for more research on blue whales, "Inter-Annual Variability in Blue Whale Distribution off Southern Sri Lanka between 2011 and 2012," by Asha de Vos, Charitha B. Pattiaratchi, and Robert G. Harcourt, Journal of Marine Sciences and Engineering, 1 July 2014.

--- Allyn Jackson

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The All-Time Ultimate Greatest Ever, by Ben Polletta

If you could choose any eleven mathematicians from history to play on your World Cup team, which geometer would be your striker? If you were stuck on a desert island for an indeterminate amount of time, and you could only bring three mathematicians with you, which number theorist would go in your suitcase? If you had to eat only one mathematician for the rest of your life, which probabilist would be on your plate? We all have our own personal list of the top 100 mathematicians of all time (see Greatest Mathematicians of All Time), and we've all debated it with our friends and fought about it with our spouses.

archimedes al-khwarizimi

Kiersz's list isn't a top 13--he focuses on mathematicians whose research presaged modern innovations in mathematics and its applications--but he makes some thought-provoking choices. There are the few indisputable greats: Newton, Liebniz, Gauss, Euler, and Euclid are probably in everyone's top 10. Most people would include Pythagoras somewhere, if only for the ubiquitous Pythagorean theorem, and his followers' extreme intolerance for irrational numbers. Descartes for sure, because where would math be without the Cartesian plane? But what about Archimedes? Did you know that he used limit-like arguments to estimate the value of pi and the area under a parabolic curve almost two millenia before calculus was invented? Not to mention he was probably the first, and certainly the most famous, person to celebrate a breakthrough (his understanding of how solids displace liquids) by running through the streets naked shouting 'Eureka!' And it's a tragedy of cultural imperialism that Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the namesake of the algorithm and father of algebra, mostly goes forgotten. John Napier, the little-known father of the controversial logarithm (it's an acquired taste), is another interesting pick.

Kiersz largely leaves out the modern era, but there are plenty of players, er, scholars, from the past three centuries worthy of attention. Bernhard Riemann, a star of the German team in the mid-1800s, made three great accomplishments, any one of which would put him on the list: formalizing what's now known as the Riemann integral; founding what's now known as Riemannian geometry; and, in a single short paper, introducing the world to the Riemann zeta function and the outstanding Riemann hypothesis. Or take Poincare, who E.T. Bell called "the last universalist": the father of chaos theory, the Poincare group, and the recently-proved eponymous conjecture, is surely one of the best. Of course, it's hard to narrow down any list of the all-time greats, because each mathematician has his own style (not to mention his own field). Analysts might include Cantor, Weierstrass, Cauchy, and Fourier; probabilists would surely argue for Pascal and Bayes, not to mention the Russian giant Kolmogorov; geometers and physicists might tout the accomplishments of Hamilton, Noether, Lie, Weyl, and Einstein; and number theorists would surely give Ramanujan a nod. The fathers of computer science--Babbitt, Lovelace, Turing and von Neumann--certainly deserve a place. And who could forget the prolific combinatorialist Paul Erdős? Then there are those working today, or very recently, whose accomplishments, in time, might be as impactful as those of their predecessors--mathematicians like Fermat-slayer Andrew Wiles, chaos-theorist and topologist Steven Smale, analyst Terrence Tao, probabilist Oded Schramm, and *cough* Benjamin Pittman-Polletta. They may not all be on your list, but there's definitely room for them on mine.

See "The 12 Mathematicians Who Set The Stage For The Modern World", by Andy Kiersz, Business Insider, 3 July 2014.

--- Ben Polletta

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On the world's largest origami convention, by Claudia Clark

Robert Lang origami

In late June 650 origami aficionados from around the world gathered at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan for the OrigamiUSA annual convention, the world's largest origami convention. Attendees chose from over 200 classes, which were represented by a display of models, ranging from simple to complex. Several of the classes were full by the first morning of classes. These included a class with children's entertainer and juggler Jeremy Shafer, folding his "One-Piece Super Boomerang," as well as a class for folding a 3D origami cat, taught by physicist, engineer and origami artist Robert Lang. In addition to the classes, computer scientist Eric Demaine, with his mathematician and artist father, Martin Demaine, gave a lunchtime talk. (Photo: Robert J. Lang's 3D origami cat, subject of a sellout class at the event. Photo courtesy Robert J. Lang.

Watch a video about the event.

See: "Video: Origami Artists Don’t Fold Under Pressure," with video, by Elizabeth Yuan. Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2014.

--- Claudia Clark

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